Few things are more intimate, more personal and more special than our bodies. Each of us expresses this close relationship to our body in unique and varied ways.
For perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, we have decorated, adorned, marked and modified our physical selves in plain, elaborate and outrageous ways. In the process, we have illustrated, reaffirmed and expressed anew what it means to be human.
Humans not only make tools, use language, create “art” and modify landscapes, but also enhance their own natural features in the process of exhibiting who and what they are. Indeed, Homo sapiens can be defined as the creature that continually transforms itself, as well as the world around it.
When did this obsession with our bodies begin? Why did we paint, clothe, pierce, scar, tattoo, shape and adorn our bodies in the first place? Why not roam the world naked? After all, that is what other creatures do. And how did body art become so varied, take on so many forms and, in some cases, become so time and labour intensive?
First of all, body art knows no bounds other than the human imagination. Body art is about identity, control and communication. It is about status, initiation and rites of passage. It is about sex and being sexy. It is also about obscuring, masking, changing and transforming.
But above all else, body art is about ourselves - who we are, where we have come from, how we feel, where we are going. It is about making statements to both others and ourselves.
In this sense, it can be, literally and figuratively, deeply personal. But it usually also reflects group concerns, societies, nations, and even international trends. As a result, body art gives us a fascinating glimpse into the heart of people and places, revealing cultural norms, hidden secrets and personal tastes, as well as spontaneity, creativity and changing senses of aesthetics.
Body art may have initially been triggered by a very early attraction to bright and colourful objects, as well as a typically human preoccupation with sex. From an evolutionary perspective, this likely occurred some time after humans began to walk on two feet, about 4-6 million years ago.
One of the consequences of upright posture was a change in orientation and shape of the pelvis, with female reproductive organs more hidden. Buttocks became less obvious, and there was a change from the back to the front in terms of sexual signalling and attraction, for both males and females.
Many anthropologists believe female breasts replaced the buttocks as a sexual lure at this time, and that breast size increased as males mated with females with these increasingly exaggerated features.
At the same time, the penis became larger and more prominent for display, again as a result of mating. Breasts with less hair may have been particularly enticing, perhaps signalling youthfulness and vigour.
It is believed that, increasingly, hairlessness was selected for by both sexes. Bare skin, previously confined to buttocks, became a sexy feature in terms of choosing a mate. But as soon as we became naked, it seems we wanted to cover up, with clothing, paint, objects and all manner of marks.
This is the first part of a two-part article and a modified version of an essay first published in 2000 in the Australian Museum exhibition catalogue Body Art (Outback Print, Mosman). The Australian Museum retains copyright but has kindly consented to the republication in this format. See more on body art and the exhibition. Read part two here.